People have different interpretations as for exactly when spring begins. Some hold to the traditional calendar date of the spring solstice. Others don’t consider it spring until you can regularly go outside without a coat, regardless of whenever that may take place. Still more believe that it’s not really Spring until trees begin to grow back their leaves and flowers begin to bud and bloom. And some of the more party-oriented high school and collegiate students don’t consider the season to have officially begun until spring break rolls around.
But, for millions of baseball-loving Americans, the season really begins when spring training starts. Even if you’re still experiencing a blizzard in the Midwest or New England, the fact that somewhere in this great country, people are playing outdoors on beautiful, sunny days in front of crowds of thousands is enough to feel that spring has finally arrived. Every year, untold numbers of Americans from all walks of life, representing all political orientations and all possible ages descend upon Florida and Arizona to watch Major Leaguers shake off their winter rust and prepare for the arduous, 162-game marathon of a season that is so tantalizingly close. Spring training offers all fans, from followers of dynastic titans to those that root for the habitual cellar dwellers, a chance to hope and pray for success the upcoming regular season and that maybe, just maybe, their team will win the pennant and potentially even the World Series this time around.
As a lifelong Cubs fan, the Cactus League has always held a special place in my heart. While I can usually be content without football thanks to the NHL and college hoops, something always feels missing after the Super Bowl ends and there are no more major outdoor sporting events taking place. Even though I have never had the chance to go to any spring training games in person, the thought of eventually being able to go coupled with the prospect of another season being so close has always shaken the winter doldrums from my conscious and prepared me for the remainder of the year. The idea of being able to go watch 15 MLB teams in a single metropolitan area, all within about an hour’s drive of one another, is an enticing concept, and one that I eventually hope to be able to experience in person.
But spring training, and the Cactus League in particular, took on a much more serious note last year. In 2010, Arizona passed what is arguably the strictest piece of anti-illegal immigration legislation in our nation’s history, prompting outcries and protest marches in cities and towns throughout the United States. Immigrant- and minority-rights organizations decried the new law, claiming that it would lead to racial profiling, unequal rights based on the color of one’s skin, and potentially even creating a veritable apartheid system as overzealous police and citizen groups harass individuals of Hispanic and Latino descent regardless of residency status and subsequently make such people less trustworthy of civic institutions and less willing to report real problems to the appropriate authorities. Pro-immigration reform groups dismissed such notions, claiming that attempts to paint the new law in such broad strokes was irresponsible and that it would merely allow Arizona to carry out responsibilities that the federal government was apparently unable, or unwilling, to handle.
Arizona became quickly divided between these two camps, with businesses and civic organizations caught in the middle between potentially alienating an ever-growing segment of their local population versus angering the many conservatives in the state. Perhaps the single most prominent protest of this new law came from the Phoenix Suns of the National Basketball Association, who, in a show of solidarity with their Hispanic and Latino fans, wore their “Los Suns” Hispanic heritage jerseys to protest the new law. This action praised and condemned by many, both as an act of courage to show their opposition to a potentially unjust law and as an act of mere bravado and ignorance by those that supported it. Ignoring the fact that the NBA’s Hispanic heritage jerseys have always struck me as odd (as it seems like it would make more sense to have the team names in Spanish for such uniforms, as in the Phoenix Soles, Chicago Toros, San Antonio Espuelas, and Minnesota Maderalobos instead of having Los Sun, Los Bulls, Los Spurs, and…. wait, did the Timberwolves even have Hispanic heritage jerseys?), there can be no denying that this was a particularly unusual and courageous act, regardless of one’s opinion on the legislation itself. We rarely see any professional sports organization willing to take any side in such a controversial issue as immigration reform, and as a result of that action it elicited responses from personalities such as President Obama (who praised the act) and radio host Rush Limbaugh (who deplored it).
But while the Suns received attention for their jerseys, Major League Baseball was the organization that really attracted the lion’s share of attention from immigrant- and minority-rights groups. Almost immediately after the law was signed into law, opponents rallied outside Wrigley Field in Chicago to protest against it. Why, you may ask? Because the Arizona Diamondbacks were in town. Similar protests took place both inside and outside stadiums when the Diamondbacks were in San Diego, Houston, Atlanta, Boston, Cincinnati, Washington D.C., and elsewhere. Wherever the Diamondbacks went, protests seemed to follow.
But the protests weren’t merely against the individual team, but against the entirety of Major League Baseball. Multiple groups have called on Bud Selig, the commissioner of the league, to relocate the scheduled 2011 MLB All-Star Game, scheduled to take place in the Diamondbacks’ own Chase Field in Phoenix, Arizona. Despite Selig’s refusal to move the game, calls intensified in the weeks following the law’s passage to expand to all fifteen teams with spring training facilities in Arizona. These calls were especially levied against the Chicago Cubs, the crown jewel of the Cactus League and the entirety of spring training due to the vast numbers of fans that they draw to their games. At the time, the Cubs had brand new ownership and were in negotiations with the state to fund the construction of a new facility for them, leaving many immigrant-rights activists to hope that they could hit Arizona where it really hurt and convince the Cubs to move their spring training facilities to the Grapefruit League in Florida. Such an outcome would have undoubtedly shaken not only the local and state governments, but local businesses that thrive on Cubs business and the Cactus League itself by losing their main draw. In the end however, the Cubs were convinced to stay in the Cactus League, but only after the locals bent over backwards and passed a slight tax increase on the other 14 teams in the Cactus League to fund the Cubs’ new facility, much to their displeasure (especially their interleague rival White Sox, who are also in the Cactus League).
Like most protests, anger and resentment over the law has died down considerably over the past several months, and pressure directed against baseball has likewise simmered as well, though we should undoubtedly anticipate an uptick in attention on the matter as spring training progresses and as we get nearer to the All-Star Game in July. But this entire situation leaves us with a very real question to ask…. why was so much of the attention directed against Major League Baseball? Granted, the Cactus League generates a significant source of income for Arizona during February and March, but so would boycotts against a variety of products from the state of Arizona. Why would baseball receive so much attention when the NFL is by far the most popular league in the United States, and when the NHL has its own troubled Arizona-based team that could very well be pressured into moving out of the state given their own financial difficulties?
The answer to that question is multifaceted. While the NFL has surpassed it as the most popular sport in the United States, baseball still retains the status as our national pastime to millions of Americans. But the answer to that question goes even deeper. Simply put, Major League Baseball is the single most international North American professional league. While the NFL has started to attract a number of European and Australian players, it is still overwhelmingly an American game. The NBA is most likely the single-most popular North American league in the world, with millions of fans worldwide and and ever increasing contingent of foreign-born players filling its ranks, but the league itself is still American-dominated. The NHL is the only sport where Americans make up a minority of its players, and there are considerable numbers of European players in the league, but the fact remains that Canadians still make up the majority of its players, so it is still North-American dominated. When you compare those leagues with Major League Baseball though, their international reach appear absolutely limited by comparison. Even though American-born players are still a majority, it is the players from East Asia and Latin America that are truly spreading the popularity of the game like none other and making some of the most exciting innovations in the game.
The Latin American presence in baseball is impossible to downplay. Baseball has, by far, the largest active makeup of Latin American players of any major sport in North America, and as a result its connection to Arizona’s immigration law were particularly felt. Huge swaths of Latin America remain one of the few locations in the world where baseball remains the world’s most popular sport, even ahead of soccer and basketball. MLB teams have long relied on scouring the Caribbean, Central America, and South America for talent to add to their minor league teams and their major league rosters. Fully a quarter of all current Major League Baseball players are foreign-born, of which the vast majority are from Latin America. With half of all MLB teams having spring training facilities in Arizona, the potential impact of the law on these players was especially worrisome to the MLB Players Association. Ozzie Guillen, the firebrand manager of the Chicago White Sox, wasted no time to express his displeasure of the new law and his concern over the impact that it could have on him, his family, and his players. He has already announced that he will not attend the 2011 All-Star Game in protest of the law, and has claimed to spoken with a number of other Latino players and officials about their concerns with the law. His concerns about the potential safety and well-being of Latin0 and Hispanic players, especially those that speak exclusively in Spanish or in heavily-broken English, were perhaps the most noticeably vocal and poignant criticisms that came from the world of professional sports outside the Phoenix Suns choice of jerseys.
While the protests have simmered down and the opposition to the new law seems to have mostly stalled, the protests to the new law and the focus that it brought on Major League Baseball remains a timely and important example of how the world of sports and politics really can intertwine. Just a year ago, who could’ve possibly imagined that baseball would, at least for a brief moment, become one of the main battlegrounds in the realm of immigration reform?